Charlotte doubled its win last season compared to 2015, which is impressive considering it was the 49ers’ second season in FBS and as a member of Conference USA. Now the challenge for head coach Brad Lambert is to build on that momentum while having to replace the core players from the program’s first recruiting class. There are some rather large holes to fill on both sides of the ball, so it’s entirely possible that Charlotte takes a step backward, at least in the win column, this fall.
Previewing Charlotte Football’s Offense for 2017
While Charlotte’s season ended on a down note — the 49ers lost their last three games — at least coach Brad Lambert found a quarterback. After stepping into the starting role midway through the year, North Carolina A&T transfer Hasaan Klugh made the job his own, accounting for 15 total touchdowns in the final seven games. Lambert says that after a strong spring, the junior solidified his status as one of the team’s most effective leaders. After missing last season with a back injury, junior Brooks Barden will give Klugh an experienced backup.
Klugh will have the benefit a deep group of tested receivers, led by senior T.L. Ford and junior Workpeh Kofa. The 49ers, however, need to establish a deep threat; neither Ford nor Kofa averaged more than 12.2 yards per reception last season.
“We’ve got some age there, some experience. We’re kind of leaning on that group,” Lambert says.
But there are pressing questions elsewhere. Sophomore running backs Robert Washington and Benny LeMay — as well as converted linebacker Markevis Davis — will try to fill the void left by former All-Conference USA pick Kalif Phillips. And along the offensive line there is some experience, but scant continuity. Don’t be surprised if they work some junior college pickups into the rotation.
With Greg Adkins brought in to handle the offensive line and coordinate the running game, it’ll feel like a fresh start for this piece of the offense.
Previewing Charlotte Football’s Defense for 2017
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Two-thirds of last season’s solid defensive front are gone. While Larry Ogunjobi’s and Brandon Banks’ absences will be felt, Lambert says he’s excited to see what sophomore Randy Suydam, junior Tyler Fain and senior Nick Carroll can do in their place. Charlotte had the luxury of redshirting a handful of defensive linemen last season. This year, they’ll have to grow up quickly as they’ll be pressed into service early in a unit in need of depth.
Senior Karrington King will have to pick up the slack from the departure of fellow linebacker Nick Cook, last season’s leading tackler. Expect veteran outside linebackers Jeff Gemmell and Tyriq Harris to build on productive 2016 campaigns. While there are questions to be answered at linebacker, Lambert believes that the 49ers have the raw materials to be strong there.
There are also solid options in the secondary as sophomores AJ McDonald and Ben DeLuca return at safety and Robert Cheatem and Marquavis Gibbs are expected to make an impact in their first run at cornerback alongside veterans Anthony Covington and Denzel Irvin. The 49ers gave up 309.8 yards per game through the air last season, so improvement here will be a welcome sight.
Previewing Charlotte Football’s Specialists for 2017
Senior Arthur Hart is locked in at punter after averaging 39.2 yards per kick last season. But the kicking job is wide open. Both of last season’s kickers are gone, leaving redshirt freshman Kyle Corbett, sophomore Jackson Vansickle and others to figure it out.
Charlotte’s third season in FBS and fifth overall will feel strange since it’s the first without the 19 players who made it through from the program’s initial recruiting class. So not only is the group trying to fill some major holes on the field, but it’s also trying to find its identity off of it.
Last season’s four wins doubled the output from the year before. And with three losses coming by a touchdown or less, that improvement could have been steeper. But this season, Charlotte will likely need to keep its expectations in check. While the 49ers have potential, they’ll also likely need to draw on plenty of patience.
National Ranking: 126
C-USA East Prediction: 7
(Karrington King photo courtesy of Charlotte 49ers Athletics)